Corruption: Delays and irregularities mar prosecutors’ efforts Financial_Times - 2006/7/12
Boris Velchev, Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor, says there will be no quick fixes to reform the country’s judicial system in spite of intensifying pressure from the European Union for it to demonstrate “concrete progress” against high-level corruption and organised crime.
Bulgaria has fallen behind Romania in tackling both issues, say European Commission officials, and the government’s effort to improve performance is being closely monitored in Brussels.
“What we owe to our European partners is to demonstrate that we have a justice system that is on an irreversible path to reform and that, when we have enough evidence, we will pursue cases to the end – regardless of whether the government or political personalities are involved,” says Mr Velchev. However, several recent decisions by Bulgarian courts can hardly be described as encouraging.
Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, warned in May that the accession of Bulgaria and Romania’s could be delayed if they failed to make enough progress in tackling corruption but, since then, two high-profile cases have resulted in acquittals and another has been dismissed on procedural grounds.
Stefan Sofianski, a former prime minister and mayor of Sofia, was acquitted by the capital’s “first instance” court, the first level of legal proceedings, on charges of abusing his authority as mayor. Three other cases against him on similar charges have still to be heard.
Last month, too, the Sofia appeals court overturned the convictions of four men found guilty by a lower court of the 1996 killing of Andrey Lukanov, a former prime minister who was implicated in a power struggle among shady business groups during the early years of Bulgaria’s transition.
In the corporate domain, the supreme administrative court ruled that a prosecutor’s complaint against the award of a ˆ700m motorway contract to a Bulgarian-Portuguese consortium had been filed after the deadline had expired. Work on the Trakia highway project linking Sofia with the Turkish border is expected to start later this year.
Mr Velchev, a Sofia University law professor who took over the prosecutor’s job last February, called all three decisions “regrettable” but avoids criticising the judiciary.
“We have to make sure in future that the prosecution does its job properly,” he says.
Mr Velchev says that, as part of a drive to improve efficiency, his team is examining about 20 cases in which prosecutors had delayed bringing cases to court for up to six years.
Also under scrutiny are the results of preliminary investigations by police on instructions from prosecutors. “Sadly we are beginning to find that a lot of irregularities took place,” he says.
But the case of Angel Iliev and Tseko Iordanov, two senior prosecutors, underlines the difficulties Mr Velchev faces in implementing reform. Both refused to step down after Mr Velchev requested their resignations on grounds of serious breaches of duty.
Mr Velchev has referred the case to Bulgaria’s 25-member supreme judicial council, a regulatory body consisting of parliamentary deputies, judges and prosecutors – among them Mr Iordanov.
However, the reform effort is showing results on the streets of Sofia. The number of contract killings in Bulgaria has fallen from 18 in 2005 to just two in the first five months this year, according to the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think-tank.
Over the past decade more than 120 such killings have been carried out in Sofia and the Black Sea resorts, usually on busy streets during business hours.
Government officials have said the attacks are the result of turf wars among organised crime groups involved in smuggling fuel and cigarettes and the trafficking of women.
So far, there have been no convictions in any of the cases.
“The number of killings is broadly on a level with western European countries.
“What is so troubling is the impunity of the contract killers. The investigators appear afraid to solve these crimes,” says Ognian Shentov, the Center for the Study of Democracy’s director.
Nelly Koutzkova, president of the Bulgarian judges’ association, says that, in spite of the public perception that corruption is pervasive in the judicial system, improved training of judges and closer co-operation with the police has started to produce results.
“There’s a new generation of judges working their way up the system who are committed to fair play and upholding the rule of law.”
Author: Kerin Hope